DALLAS -- It was precisely two months ago that Gary Payton sat in a sticky gym in Hawaii, cocked his head to the side like he does and wore his usual scowl as he answered the umpteenth question about distractions and clashing egos and one ball.
"If we go 40-2," GP said then, "what you gonna talk about?"
We checked back in with Payton on Thursday night to give him the satisfaction of knowing that we're already stumped, with the Lakers parked at a mere 16-3.
"That's what I came here for," GP says now. "For it to be this way."
Not us. Not yet. This is not the start of the season we showed up for. It is way too early for Payton and the Lakers to feel as good about themselves as they clearly do now, judging by GP's louder-than-ever cackling before games ... and how Payton pretended to snap Shaquille O'Neal's picture after one vicious dunk here ... and how Shaq was wiping tears from his eyes in the middle of the floor, so relaxed that he could laugh uncontrollably at a scoreboard spoof that dubbed him "Shaaaaaq Albert."
Watching the Lakers steamroll Dallas, to cap a one-week stretch that also featured home-and-home victories over San Antonio and a rout of Indiana in L.A., left your humble correspondent muttering my own rhetorical question on press row, after a nearby scout made a rather foreboding suggestion.
"Looks like everybody's playing for second place," the scout said.
Our response: Uh, where is everybody else?
OK, OK. It's still early. In spite of the growing sense of doom that the Lakers are generating around the league, and as good as they openly feel about the momentum they're building, even the most famously smug among them know it's laughable for scouts or anyone else to suggest that the season is already over.
"No it's not over," Shaq said. "I'm not impressed by a 16-3 start. It's what we're supposed to do."
Coach Phil Jackson, meanwhile, looks at the Lakers' road-heavy schedule in January and February and admits: "We have to pay the piper later on."
Then again ...
It's definitely not too early to wonder how long we're going to have to wait to see some evidence of that West Fab Five we were promised coming into the season. The Lakers are actually the most injury-free of the elite teams, which helps explain why they're the only elitist to start this convincingly, but there are several teams that have to be disappointed with their early form, even at less than full strength. Even in a West that, top-to-bottom, is as tough as it has ever been.
Portland as always, but Phoenix especially.
Sacramento is the only other West power that can claim to be satisfied with its present standing, at 12-4 without the still-shelved Chris Webber. Yet even the Kings started poorly, with a succession of blown leads, before a November slate more inviting than L.A.'s helped spark an eight-game win streak.
I'm with my man David Aldridge on this one. You've come to the wrong place if you want to hear moaning about low scores and zone defenses and how far the NBA has supposedly slipped. Has anyone watched college basketball lately?
My lament is that the West, our bedrock, is still not even close to all there yet, with basically one-fourth of the season complete. This hits home hardest every Sunday night, when it's time to assemble ESPN.com's NBA Power Rankings. In this week's edition, I couldn't round out the top 10 -- yes, top 10 of the whole NBA -- without including the Cinderellas from Utah and Denver. Those are two plucky teams full of uplifting stories, but let's be real here. Neither one was considered top-10 material when the season started. By anyone.
Now, again, you'd like to think injuries are the main problem. San Antonio played without Tim Duncan and Tony Parker for a stretch. Minnesota still hasn't seen Wally Szczerbiak and lost Troy Hudson quickly. Dallas recently lost Dirk Nowitzki.
The leftover talent on all those teams, mind you, is still better than what we've seen so far. The Spurs and Mavericks are a combined 4-13 on the road, with both clubs shooting the ball uncharacteristically poorly. The Suns are getting consistency from none of their main guys: Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion or Amare Stoudemire. The Wolves, a 50-win team more than once without a Latrell Sprewell or a Sam Cassell at Kevin Garnett's side, opened 0-4 against West opposition.
Elite teams overcome injuries, as seen in Sacramento each of the past three seasons. It also takes time to work in new guys after drastic changes, but somehow that hasn't affected the team that made some of the most pronounced alterations.
"Well ... they didn't add Gary Payton and Karl Malone," GP helpfully volunteered.
There's little doubt that the overall quality of the West has contributed to the Month One landscape. Besides the Nuggets and Jazz, Memphis, Golden State and Seattle have likewise outstripped preseason projections. "The wins are going to be harder to come by this year," Dallas co-coach Del Harris said. "Everyone can beat you if you don't have your B+ game or better, and that is not just coach-speak."
It is thus up to the aforementioned, projected title contenders to start finding that level more often. Unless you're ready to hear the Lakers crow like this all season.
"We're happy," Malone says. "Those other teams, we want to keep their misery going.
"They shouldn't be worried about us, but (by) game No. 30 or 40, they should probably be worried."
Said Payton in closing: "Everybody done forgot everything else anyway. We don't even talk about (Shaq vs. Kobe and Kobe's off-court issues) no more. Everybody is focusing on how we're playing right now."
Just like Payton suggested in that first week of October, saying: "If we go 40-2, what you gonna talk about? ... Y'all gonna talk about how dominant of a basketball team we are."
It's happening at 16-3, and way too early for me.